As far as sanctification, the process of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ, Paul started with this statement:
10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
Paul had an ardent desire, a deep hunger and thirst, to know Christ, and in knowing Him to become like Him.
But Paul, even after thirty years of intense and passionate pursuit, says in verse 12: “I’m still not what I ought to be.” I’ll be coming up on 53 years this coming Summer, and I’m still not what I ought to be.
F. B. Meyer points out that: “Self-dissatisfaction lies at the root of our noblest achievements.” And that is especially true in the spiritual realm.
A. W. Tozer remarked:
Get thoroughly dissatisfied with yourself. Complacency is the deadly enemy of spiritual progress. . . . When speaking of earthly goods Paul could say, “I have learned to be content,” but when referring to his spiritual life he testified, “I press toward the mark.” So stir up the gift of God that is in you.
One of our greatest dangers as a Christian is to grow complacent and self-satisfied. It is described as lukewarmness in the letter to the Laodicean church. In 1 Corinthians 10:12 Paul warned:
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
When you are content, you become smug, and then you find yourself insensitive to sin in your life and you defend your godless choices when you ought to be admitting your weakness and sins and determined to pursue Jesus Christ and his righteousness.
So Paul begins Philippians 3:12 with the strong “not that…”, an instant disclaimer to correct any erroneous assumptions that may have come up when he spoke of his position in Christ in vv. 8-9 and said, “found in him…with a righteousness.”
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
The repetition of the word “already” indicates that what would eventually be true—perfect spiritual maturity, complete likeness to Christ—is not yet a reality in his life.
And this ought to encourage us, for if Paul still felt like he wasn’t there yet after 30 years of striving for it, we don’t have to be discouraged that we haven’t reached spiritual perfection yet.
People could have said to Paul:
“Paul, you have the righteousness of Christ.” And Paul would have responded, “Yes, but I still need to ‘perfect holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Cor. 7:1) and ‘pursue righteousness’ (2 Tim. 2:22).
“But Paul, you’ve already come to know Christ.” And he would have returned, “Yes, but right now I ‘know in part… then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ (1 Cor. 13:12).
“But Paul, don’t you have the resurrection power?” And Paul would say, “Yes, but I also have weakness in which God shows his strength’ (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
“Don’t you have fellowship with Christ, Paul?” “Yes, but there are times that I don’t know how to pray as I ought and the Holy Spirit has to make intercession for me” (Romans 8:26-27).
“But Paul, what about the resurrection?” And he would say, “That won’t be consummated until I receive my glorious body” (Phil. 3:20).
I mean, one of the things that makes perfectionist teaching so attractive is that it does take seriously the complete victory and dynamic resources we have at our disposal in Christ already. We should be able to walk in holiness.
But it fails to recognize the equal reality that we still struggle against the sin principle within us (cf. Romans 7).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached:
So far as his acceptance with God is concerned a Christian is complete in Christ as soon as he believes. Those who have trusted themselves in the hands of the Lord Jesus are saved: and they may enjoy holy confidence upon the matter, for they have a divine warrant for so doing. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” To this salvation the apostle had attained. But while the work of Christ for us is perfect, and it were presumption to think of adding to it, the work of the Holy Spirit in us is not perfect, it is continually carried on from day to day, and will need to be continued throughout the whole of our lives. We are being “conformed to the image of Christ,” and that process is in operation, as we advance towards glory.
Paul is saying, I cannot be smug and satisfied with where I am, when there is so much of Christ to experience.
When we feel that way, we are in a dangerous position, pointed out by Spurgeon. He wrote:
Shame, then, on any of us poor dwarfs if we are so vain as to count that we have apprehended! Shame upon the indecent self-conceit of any man who congratulates himself upon his own spiritual condition, when Paul himself said, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect.” The injury which self-content will do a man it would be hard to measure, it is the readiest way to stunt him, and the surest method to keep him weak. I should be sorry indeed if I should be addressing one who imagines that he has apprehended, for his progress in grace is barred from this time forth. The moment a man says, “I have it,” he will no longer try to obtain it; the moment he cries, “It is enough,” he will not labour after more.
Again, he says…
I meet, I say, sometimes with brethren who feel contented with their spiritual condition. They do not ascribe their satisfactory character to themselves, but to the grace of God; but for all that, they do feel that they are what they ought to be, and what others ought to be but are not. They see in themselves a great deal that is good, very much that is commendable, and a large amount of excellence, which they can hold up for the admiration of others. They have reached the “higher life,” and are wonderfully fond of telling us so, and explaining the phenomena of their self-satisfied condition. Though Paul was compelled to say, “In me, that is, in my flesh, there dwelleth no good thing,” their flesh appears to be of a better quality: whereas he had spiritual conflicts, and found that without were fightings, and within were fears, these very superior persons have already trodden Satan under their feet, and reached a state in which they have little else to do but to divide the spoil.
God wants you to be dissatisfied with your current spiritual condition. You cannot improve upon your position in Christ, but you must improve upon your condition, your pursuit of knowing and experiencing Christ.
When Spain led the world (in the 15th century), her coins reflected her national arrogance and were inscribed Ne Plus Ultra which meant “Nothing Further” – meaning that Spain was the ultimate in all the world. After the discovery of the New World, she realized that she was not the end of the world, so Spain changed the inscription on her coinage to Plus Ultra meaning “More Beyond.” In the same pattern, some Christian lives say, “Nothing Further” and others say “More Beyond.” (David Guzik)
And that leads us to Paul’s third point. Not only must we desire it strongly (“I want to know Christ) and not only must we be dissatisfied with where we are (“have not obtained, become perfect”), we must also devote maximum effort in pursuing this prize.
When Paul expresses this in verse 12 and 14 he uses the word dioko. It was a term used for the military pursuit of an enemy and of the predator’s pursuit after its prey. It is the same word Paul used back in verse 6 when he says he was a “persecutor” of the church.
When used in the athletic context, as Paul is here, it refers to the sprinter who exerts maximum effort and energy, running with all their might, or as football players say today, “leaving it all on the field.”
It is giving a 110% effort with the aim of winning.
And that’s what it takes. You cannot win if you give a lazy effort. You will not win if you’re only half-hearted about the training or the race itself.
John Haggai writes about John Wesley (I’ll use him as a positive example now):
“John Wesley traveled on horseback the equivalent of ten times around the earth’s equator. He preached as often as 15 times a week for fifty years. He authored more publications than any writer in the English language until contemporary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He read books while making his horseback journeys. When he was past eighty, he complained that he could not read and work more than fifteen hours a day.”
There was a man who gave maximum effort. He gave it all he had.
The present tense of this verb describes an ongoing, grasping, strenuous pursuit. It is a gritty, “I will not be denied,” rough-and-tumble pursuit — a sublime violence — which Christ approved and approves of.
He said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). This is how it was with John the Baptist when he burst from the wilderness clad in his leathers, fiercely heralding the kingdom.
So it was with the paralytic’s friends when they tore through the roof in Capernaum to get him to Jesus (cf. Mark 2:4).
At the end of verse 12 we have the first clue as to what Paul was pursuing. He says, “I’m after that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” In other words, “I’m pursuing the very things for which Christ pursued me.”
When Paul said, “That I may lay hold,” he used strong language. “The word ‘apprehend’ is from the same Greek word translated ‘attained,’ but with a preposition prefixed which means in its local force ‘down.’ He wants to catch hold of it and pull it down, like a football player who not only wants to catch his man, but wants to pull him down and make him his own.” (Wuest) so that the tackle is awarded to him.
I want you to notice two things about this last clause.
First, it signals that my spiritual pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness was preceded by and initiated by Christ’s pursuit of me, with the aim that I become like Him.
Christ pursued me. He grabbed me. And thankfully He never lets go.
He is the “hound of heaven,” pursuing us not only for salvation, but for sanctification and ultimate glory.
Paul’s “language comes from the world of war and athletics” (Thielman). In fact, in a battle report the ancient historian Herodotus used the same words Paul used to describe an army’s pursuit and seizure of the retreating columns of the enemy.
That’s significant on two levels.
For example, those who believe that they were the ones who sought out Christ and finally found Him, often feel like they are doing him a favor when they sacrifice their time and energies to pursue Christ.
He took the initiative. He chased and caught me. Now, Paul says, “I am pursuing Him.”
But those who know they were “grabbed,” “chased after and caught,” sometimes forcibly (like Paul was), know that they had nothing to do with it and it is all of grace, and they are then willing to devote their lives to the one who cared enough to come running after them.
Paul’s whole pursuit of Christ was Christ-originated, Christ-motivated, and Christ-propelled.
Paul has already expressed this once, back in chapter 2
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We merely work out what God is working in us, giving us both the desire and the power to pursue His good pleasure, His glory.
Brothers and sisters, if you have been seized by Christ and are in the grip of his grace, you must press on in your own hot, grasping pursuit of an ever-deeper knowledge of him. The gospel allows no room for a bland, middle-class ethic that strives to be neither hot nor cold (cf. Revelation 3:14-16).
It is also significant in that once Christ grabs hold of us, He never lets go.
Jesus expressed this about Himself and the Father in John 10:27-30 when he said:
27 “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
The Son and the Father have grabbed hold of us and “no one is able to snatch” us out of their all-powerful hands! This communicates that we are completely secure in our salvation, No one can snatch out of their hands and we cannot fall out or jump out. He has us, forever!
We are not kept for salvation by our own holding onto Christ, but by His indefatigable holding on to us. As Matthew Henry said: “Not our keeping hold of Christ, but his keeping hold of us, is our safety.”
But notice again that Paul is not content with merely Christ pursuing and holding onto him, but now, like any lover, he reciprocates by laying hold of Christ.
Also, as we look at this clause we need to start asking, “What does Christ want from me?” “Why did He pursue me?” “Why has he laid hold of me?”
David Guzik identifies these six reasons:
· Jesus laid hold of Paul to make him a new man (Romans 6:4) – so Paul would lay hold of that and wanted to see the converting work of Jesus completely carried out in himself.
· Jesus laid hold of Paul to conform him into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29) – so Paul would lay hold of that and wanted to see the nature of Jesus within himself.
· Jesus laid hold of Paul to make him a witness (Acts 9:15) – so Paul would lay hold of both the experience of Jesus and to testify of that experience.
· Jesus laid hold of Paul to make him an instrument in the conversion of others (Acts 9:15) – so Paul would lay hold of the work of bringing others to Jesus.
· Jesus laid hold of Paul to bring him into suffering (Acts 9:16) – so Paul would lay hold of even that work of God in his life, wanting to know Jesus in the fellowship of His sufferings.
· Jesus laid hold of Paul that so that the Apostle might attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:11) – so Paul would lay hold of that heavenly hope.
Jesus wants us to know Him, but also to become like Him. The more time we spend in His presence the more we will become like Him. In fact, the way we can know that we really know Him is precisely that we are in the process of becoming like Him.
When His desires become our desires, when His will becomes our will, when His ways become our ways, that is what shows that we really know Him.
We might claim to know Him, to be laid hold of by Him, but the truth of it lies in whether it lights a fire in us to pursue Him and devote ourselves to becoming like Him.